The effects of lead poisoning on a child’s physical and emotional development and cognitive ability are well known. An investigation that ran two years ago in the Star-Ledger of New Jersey estimated that 7,000 children throughout the state – in cities and suburbs – suffered impairment, and another 30,000 untested children under the age of six may already be poisoned. Nationally, the New York Times reported that one-quarter of American homes with children under age six contain lead-based paint. Even low levels of lead in a child’s blood can result in permanent intellectual damage and emotional and physical problems. While advocates and some politicians agree that lead hazards are a major issue, few elected officials have committed themselves to initiatives that will eradicate or diminish exposure to lead in homes and public places.
Earlier efforts to pass a bill in New Jersey floundered. In 1997 former Assembly Speaker Jack Collins was the sole sponsor of the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Act, which would have established a grant and loan program to help alleviate lead hazards in the state. But without the support of other policy makers, interest in the bill dwindled.
New Jersey Citizen Action (NJCA) has lobbied for lead prevention and remediation for years and, together with a network of other community organizations, was determined to revive interest in and pass the six-year-old bill. These organizations considered the bill central to renters, homeowners, landlords and tenant advocates.
NJCA decided to work on increasing community awareness and held state-funded forums on lead abatement for homeowners and landlords of one- to three-unit buildings in East Orange, Newark and Irvington. In addition, NJCA joined with other community organizations to form a Lead Task Force. Members included the New Jersey Environmental Federation (NJEF), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Communications Workers of America (CWA) 1081 and La Casa De Don Pedro, a Newark-based CDC. Together they organized a strong grassroots campaign educating citizens about the lead issue, the state bill and how they could affect policy.
For example, Kim Gaddy, an NJEF organizer, made certain to include information about lead poisoning and the dormant Collins bill in her organization’s programs for homeowners and renters – “Home Safe Home” and “Healthy Mothers and Healthy Babies.” Gaddy was a participant in the CWA 1081 and NJCA collaborative “Train the Trainer” program, which helped to mobilize and educate community leaders on the issue. These and other organizations helped to mobilize a large and diverse group of people that legislators couldn’t afford to ignore. And it kept organizers like Gaddy up to date on the topic.
“Not only did it help me understand other areas of lead of which I was unaware, but also made me knowledgeable as a homeowner and community educator about the inspections and forms homeowners are required to conduct and sign regarding lead hazards on their property,” says Gaddy.
With Collins gone, State Sen. Ronald Rice agreed to become the primary sponsor for the bill. Rice is a Democrat whose district in Essex County includes parts of Newark, a city long bedeviled by lead poisoning in its aging housing stock. On March 18, 2002, the bill was presented and referred to the Community and Urban Affairs Committee. Three days later, it was sent to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. In both committees, the bill was revised to include homeowners (not just renters) and one- and two-unit dwellings. The bill would establish a $2 million lead-safe housing grant and loan program and a registry plan, drawing on a variety of sources for funds. During committee hearings, tenant advocates, NJCA staff, homeowners and parents of children who had been poisoned were brought in to testify – a presentation that clearly hit home with the committee.
But there were other obstacles. The New Jersey state budget was behind schedule due to prolonged Senate negotiations regarding the vast deficit. In order to get the Senate to vote on the lead bill, Rice threatened to withhold his budgetary vote.
On June 30, 2003, an emergency resolution was passed 31-0 to bring the bill out of committee for a vote and it passed in the Senate, 24-4. The Assembly companion version of the bill must pass in order for the governor to sign it. The Lead Task Force has found another champion for the bill – Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg, a Bergen County Democrat. Although the bill is in its second reading in the Assembly, there is much to be done. The task force and the newly formed New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance are keeping pressure on assembly members to ensure that the bill is passed.
Earlier failure of the bill can be attributed to having only one main sponsor and a weakness in organized actions. When Collins was the exclusive sponsor of the bill, he made sure it was known that it was his bill. Although this posture attracted funding and attention, it created a dangerous dependence. NJCA learned that focusing solely on Collins was a mistake, recognizing in retrospect that a more inclusive effort among legislators and community groups would have been a more effective strategy. By forming the Lead Task Force, organizers were on their way to building a larger and more varied constituency for the campaign.
The role the news media play in keeping the heat on legislators is also not to be underestimated. The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, the Detroit Free Press and City Limits magazine, in words and heartbreaking pictures, highlight the depth of the problem, the failure of government oversight, the lack of political will and the lasting effects on children. These articles provide an arsenal of information and outrage that can and should be used to stir lawmakers.